Truth and trust are the great casualties of 2016

If we cannot have faith in those who represent us, the rule of law and our shared institutions are all in danger, argues Sholto Byrnes

What have been the biggest casualties in the US presidential election so far? Civil war is already breaking out in the Republican party, and come 2017 the GOP might find itself in control of neither the White House nor the Senate, and may lose the House as well.

Some commentators have identified civility as being a quality in political discourse that has been damaged beyond repair by this year’s battle. After Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” and his attempts to exploit skeletons in Bill Clinton’s cupboard, that may well be true.

But what we are in danger of losing, not just in America but in many countries, is of far greater consequence. For trust and the truth itself appear to play ever diminishing roles in politics across the continents. In the United States it is not just that the electorate is faced with two candidates they don’t believe to be honest and trustworthy (with 67 per cent taking that view of Mrs Clinton and 62 per cent of Mr Trump in one poll over the summer).

Old fashioned facts also seem to be losing their underpinnings and importance. Did Mr Trump support the Iraq war before he turned against it? The evidence is that he did, albeit somewhat hesitantly. But he insists he was always against it; and in his universe that is a fact, and one that his supporters accept as such. It is no longer germane to talk of something having the ring of truth – the ring of “truthiness”, as the American satirist Stephen Colbert puts it, is what now matters.

Leave aside the gormless credulity of those who believe everything they read on the internet or social media. The stretching of the truth and the broadcasting of outright lies has been going on for years in America.

Right wing commentators have long accused politicians they deem insufficiently conservative of voting for tax hikes, when they merely cast their ballot to continue a levy with a sunset clause. Since the rate never goes up, it cannot logically be a hike. But this distorted version of the truth is taken for the real thing by many, and its proponents shamelessly persist in their falsehoods.

In the 2004 election a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth may have cost John Kerry the presidency with a smear campaign undermining his record as a Vietnam war hero. Their distortions were contradicted by those who served with him, but the mud stuck, and so extreme is the American attachment to free speech that court rulings have effectively granted a “right to lie” under the US constitution’s first amendment. However, never, before this year, has a presidential candidate availed himself of that right so freely.

And it is not just in America. Britain’s Brexit campaign was marred by wild exaggerations on both sides, but the “Leave” campaign’s declaration that the UK sends the EU £350 million (Dh 1.6 billion) a week was the most barefaced of lies. No conjuring with semantics could disguise that fact.

All the expert institutions, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UK Statistics Authority, pronounced it misleading (or “absurd”, in the case of the IFS). But, as the then Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove said during the campaign, people “have had enough of experts”. They’d rather believe what they’d like to be true instead.

This casually deceitful approach has had other consequences. Across Europe fears of “Eurabia” – a fictitious long-term project of the EU elite to Islamise and Arabise the continent – has stoked Islamophobia and led to the enactment of legislation that would be risible, were it not for the fact that it clearly aims to victimise a minority population.

Thus, Switzerland voted to ban the construction of minarets in 2009 – even though there were only four in the whole country. Earlier this year Latvia proposed a law banning face veils, “for all three women who wear them”, as one tart headline put it.

Deceit can be perpetrated by politicians of all persuasions. It may be noted, however, that all the instances to which I have referred have involved populist politicians and campaigns.

And while there is nothing wrong with populism per se – it can be one of the purest articulations of the democratic will – there is something particularly pernicious about populist deception, precisely because it is so likely to appeal to vast numbers.

In Malaysia, to take another case, the government introduced a goods and services tax, known as GST, last year, in order to broaden the tax base and protect revenue against external shocks. The opposition opposed it, and continues to do so, despite the facts that every reputable economist – including those at the World Bank and the IMF – supported the move, and that countries such as India and Saudi Arabia are following suit.

Malaysia’s opposition parties must know this and they must know that had GST not been introduced there would have been a gaping hole in the nation’s finances because of the plunge in the price of oil, which is a major income stream. But they prefer to try to curry favour by attacking a tax whose imposition was unpopular – even though they know it is necessary.

If truth is the first casualty of war, and politics is war by other means, then perhaps we should not expect to rely on the word of our politicians, still less trust them. Yet they are the tribunes of the people – of us.

If we cannot have faith in those who represent us, the rule of law and our shared institutions are all in danger. Never mind what Donald Trump might do in the White House. America – and the world – has become a less safe place just because of the campaign so far.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National